Product Requirements: Throw Out the Laundry List and Have Some Fun
Throw Out The “Laundry List”
My boss calls me into his office and says that it’s time to create a new product description. “OK,” I say, not sure what to expect at this new company. He opens a spreadsheet and we start filling in the product requirements. At the top of one page is a space to put in the customer needs. No more than a large cell in the spreadsheet. He types in a couple of lines. The rest is all about the product. There’s a line for each feature or requirement, but nothing to explain why one feature is better than another or what a customer would do with it. Only a column that calls out where it’s a must have or an optional feature.
This process uses what I’ve come to call a “Laundry List” approach.
I ask when we’ll be talking about this with the developers, but I’m not hopeful at their response. During my last meeting, they offered not one single point of view on what a potential product would look like. They simply wanted a list of features and requirements – and that was that. I don’t say much. I hold my breath knowing that this is wrong, oh so wrong.
Focus on Customer Needs First
In contrast, my first product description took me months. I researched customers, crafting the key benefits then defined product requirements that would deliver them to our loyal customers. The lead engineer and I spent a lot of time discussing what would be in or out – and why. The answers that became the requirements involved a complex interaction of aesthetics, usability, technical limitations and market-oriented requests. And my boss demanded key financial goals be identified before any work was started. A UI person gave us options so that the product interface hit the mark. And I searched for the perfect product to bundle with our product to make sure that this product would sell. And it did. The final product made the company a lot of money!
These are two perspectives on creating product requirements.
In one, it’s a purely technical exercise. In another, it’s a collaborative experience that brings everyone’s expertise to the party. If you are looking to bring the best ideas to the table as you build your product requirements, there’s a lot that Product Managers can do.
To start with, your job is to set the stage for this process and stand in place of the customer when deciding whether an idea comes close to the mark or is way off course.
Split the Process into Two Stages
So, how do you create a process that brings out the best ideas while filtering out the losers before they gather momentum? When you look for solutions or requirements, you pass through two stages. In stage one, you generate a lot of ideas. In the second stage, you explore and sort them. The final stage is prioritization, but we’ll deal with that topic another day.
One – Idea Generation
Research gives us guidelines to help the guide the best process for generating product requirements. One study showed that if you want to come up with the best ideas, you don’t actually ask for people’s best ideas. No, you ask them to generate a LOT of ideas. Research also reveals that the more fun the activity, the more creative participants will be.
Wonderful, your job is to generate a lot of ideas while having fun. Sign me up!
Only, many of us set up a scenario where one person is taking notes and you are all in the most dull of places in the building. You know. The pale green room with low lighting that feels like something out of a 1950’s nuclear bunker movie. No! Time to get creative. And I’m not talking about drawing creatively. I’ve seen a LOT of drawings made by Product Managers over the years. So far, no artistic geniuses, and that includes me.
Product Managers are creative in other ways: how they bring people together, how they set up unlikely situations to create creative tension and how they allow each participant can bring their best ideas to the table. Kick off by deciding which product requirements you want the team to get to grips with right now.
Then decide on the best idea generating game. The Innovation Games website is a great place to look for games which bring out the fun – and creative side of everyone. If not, brainstorming or mind mapping are possible tools that many Product Managers use successfully.
Look for tools which engage everyone – introvert and extrovert.
Also look for games which puts the group on one side and the possible solutions in front of them. In that way, everyone is on the same side. At this stage, you want to avoid any “us versus them” scenarios
I am personally fond of brainstorming possible solutions and requirements. It works well because the focus is on quantity – and with a little thought, it can be a fun process. If you’re working with remote teams, there are several whiteboard applications and many online meeting spaces offer whiteboard options. Get creative in the questions you ask. Use time limitations to force people to focus and work quickly. Change the rules if you’re not getting the results you want.
Two – Exploring and Sorting Ideas
Once you have a lot of ideas, several may look more promising. Think of how you can use these techniques to explore some of the ideas further. Another personal favorite is mind mapping.
If you’ve never created a mind map, this tool with its freeform branches is a flexible way to collect everyone’s ideas no matter how introverted. One idea that works well if you have a group of introverts: start a mind map session in silence. No one talks for the first few minutes. Then you can open up the floor to discussion.
When you involve engineers, bring in tools they can get their hands on. Maybe simple ones: paper, sticky notes, colored pencils – tape? Go all out and invest in pipe cleaners and colored paper for larger projects. No matter what your product, the initial sessions can feel more like a kindergarten art project.
The goal with these tools is to move things around. For software, sticky notes are a powerful tool that can shift from place to place as ideas are examined, processed and then re-examined. It’s so much easier to throw out a sticky note than a beautiful drawing, wireframe or document.
Plan to repeat parts of these processes over and over again until the whole starts to emerge.
If, like many Product Managers, you are adapting, updating and reinventing an existing product these techniques still work well. They give us the ability to see the solution with different eyes – and to get as many eyes on the problem as possible. And since research shows us that getting a product to 9 or 10 is much more profitable than a product rated 5 or 6, the benefits are self-evident.
As you brainstorm your product requirements, keep in mind that more ideas are better and that having fun is an important part of the process. Now I challenge you to try.
Meet the Author
Pamela Schure is the Director of Products and Services with 280 Group. She is a 25 year Product Management, Product Marketing and international business veteran with companies such as Apple, Sun Microsystems and Adaptec.
Director of Products and Services